You Can Ban “Feminist” But You Can’t Ban Me

2014 may very well be the year America found Feminism. Which is exactly why “Feminist” it is leading the Time magazine poll of words to ban in 2015.* Because it’s happening. Empowerment. Consciousness raising. A culture altering shift in our perception of gender roles, sexuality and what makes each of us valuable as unique beings. Among feminism’s most public 2014 moments:

The title of Sarah Seltzer’s response the to the Time list hits the nail on the head, “The Word “Feminist” Isn’t Overused — It’s Winning.” The winds of change are blowing through the status quo and Time is just the latest perpetrator in an all too familiar response by the media to undermine and erase an ongoing and essential movement. A bit ironic considering this is that same outlet who chose Beyoncé, current pop-cultural Queen of Feminism, as the cover for 2014’s Most Influential Person issue.

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Photo source: Huffington Post

 

The term backlash is nothing new, but the specific backlash by the media in response to women gaining power is a pattern first brought into the mainstream dialogue by Susan Faludi’s 1991 Pulitzer prize winning book, aptly entitled Backlash. Faludi’s thesis, and the book’s subtitle, calls attention to “the undeclared war against women” being fought by mythical media narratives that enforce patriarchal values that serve to dominate and dismiss women. As the overview points out:

Whatever progress feminism has recently made, Faludi’s words today seem prophetic. The media still love stories about stay-at-home moms and the “dangers” of women’s career ambitions; the glass ceiling is still low; women are still punished for wanting to succeed; basic reproductive rights are still hanging by a thread.

Sound familiar?

The specific backlash Faludi named 23 years ago has been present since the first wave of feminism began in the late 1800s, when women began organizing for their right to vote. In her groundbreaking publication The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf explores the consistent historical connection between women’s progress in the world and the media’s responses to women’s roles, specifically in advertising:

Magazines first took over advertisers at the turn of the century. As suffragists were chaining themselves to the gates of the White House and Parliament, the circulation of women’s magazines doubled.

Distracting women with gendered propaganda aimed to keep them vulnerable, submissive, and distracted from real issues is the primary goal of advertising, both then and now. Most people are familiar with the women’s labor movement during World War II in which women filled the gap left by in the workplace while the men were away. Less known is the post-war response by advertisers such as to get working women back into the homes through sexist campaigns that appealed to curating and maintaining their physical appearance and their natural aptitude for domesticity. This trend that has continued for so long that media scholar Jean Kilbourne has made a 40 year career critiquing the industry, noting:

The average American will spend one and one-half years of his or her life watching television commercials. The ads sell a great deal more than products. They sell values, images, and concepts of success and worth, love and sexuality, popularity and normalcy. They tell us who we are and who we should be. Scientific studies and the most casual viewing yield the same conclusion: women are shown almost exclusively as housewives or sex objects.

2014, however, was rife with changes in these narratives. A Tide commercial features a father  in the caregiver role with his daughter and responsible for the laundry; stand-up comedian Aziz Ansari discussed and defined feminism on late TV, including admonishing the crowd for their lack of applause after he asked if there were any feminists in the house, and the Internet was ablaze with campaigns like #YesAllWomen calling attention to the commonplace misogyny and violence women experience everyday.

So, it’s no accident that in a year when feminism became, potentially, its most visible would also be the year it was most targeted.

The reason the word feminist is leading this “poll” is not nearly as concerning as Time putting it there to begin with. As Seltzer points out, “Putting ‘feminist’ on the list ignores (or merely fails to perceive) the sea-change in discourse around the word recently.”

The list itself is representative of the insidious nature of patriarchy—the unseen and unspoken rules that apply to us all. Just the suggestion that language is static, not malleable, that a certain cultural moment is not valid or necessary, or that anyone, especially a small group of media conglomerates, can decide who can say what is not only ignorant but unconstitutional. Additionally, many of the words are specific to specific subcultures that have worked their way into the mainstream, making the list not only sexist but racist. The Daily Beast’s Samantha Allen calls attention to proliferation of words that come specifically from marginalized communities and argues:

With better curation, Time’s annual word-banishment polls could function as harmless communal exercises in which we collectively laugh at words or phrases that are past their prime. But after four years of these polls, a worrying trend is starting to emerge, one that runs far deeper than this year’s misguided inclusion of the F-word: The polls inordinately target slang and vernacular used by people of color and young white women.

Moreover, every other word on this list is slang, fleeting, and temporary. There is no need to ban those words, because they will become obsolete on their own. They will find their way out of the collective vernacular when a new word that means the same thing is ushered in by cultural trends and in the end, those other words don’t really matter that much. No matter how someone who identifies as “feminist” defines their personal feminism and yes, there are multiple definitions, one thing is certain: To call oneself a feminist means you align yourself with the a human rights movement and the umbrella under which all of these things may fall is in no way shape or form on par with “om nom nom nom.” No matter how you identify, whether you claim the word or not, suggesting it need not exist undermines, devalues and discredits all those who do claim it, who do believe it and who benefit from it’s presence. As Seltzer’s critique suggests:

If you’re getting tired of hearing the, “Is X feminist? Is Y feminist enough?” debate, try actually being a feminist. You will have that debate with yourself and your friends every waking minute of your life. Then see if you get tired of it.

There is no one more frustrated by, in the word’s of Time’s list writer Katy Steinmetz, “throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade” then actual feminists. Feminists who risked, and lost, their lives for women’s right to vote, right to choose, right to say no. Feminists who have advanced degrees in gender studies and teach at a public higher education institution in one of this country’s largest cities yet cannot pay their bills on those wages.

In her blurb suggesting feminist as an option, Steinmetz’s annoyance with feminist is that it became a thing that “every celebrity had to state their position on” and, ironically, cites a Time interview with Shailene Woodley in which the actress rejects the term but the only reason it is even discussed is because she is asked. Choosing to ask someone who clearly has no real understanding about feminism if they are feminist is a clearly a set-up to attack the word. Why not ask Emma Watson or Jennifer Lawrence or any other number of young celebrities who embrace the term not just as a self-identifier but also in their career and life choices?

Because it’s not the word they are trying to ban, it’s the mindset. It’s the spreading of ideas. It’s the right to a self-determined and chosen life for all of us.

Feminist is more than just a word, it is who you are. And that will never be banned.

Photo by Elizabeth McQuern TShirt by Tracers Book Club
Photo by Elizabeth McQuern
TShirt by Tracers Book Club

*Time Magazine has since apologized but it’s my blog so there.

Why ‘Maleficent’ is important for #YesAllWomen

Originally published by The Daily Dot.

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Angelina Jolie is talking about rape.

Last week the Academy Award-winning actress all but took over the Internet when she joined Foreign Secretary William Hague in leading the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The summit came just days after the opening of Jolie’s current film, Maleficent, which opened at no. 1 at the box office and has since grossed over $150 million worldwide. The Disney production is a retelling of the 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s point of view, one that has received mixed reviews among critics but garnered significant attention in feminist circles for its provocative storyline.

As Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart describes:

The moment that transforms Maleficentfrom a fun-loving, quirky woodland fairy into cruel, pissed-off sorceress is an act of violence. The man she thought was her friend drugs her, and while she is unconscious, he saws off her wings. She wakes up bleeding, in pain, a part of her destroyed. Sobbing. It feels like a sexual assault.

Yes, it does, and according to Jolie (who also serves as the film’s executive producer), it was meant to. During aninterview on the BBC Woman’s Hour, Jolie was explicit that the integral scene was intentionally written as a metaphor for rape.

This is no small feat in a feature film by one of America’s most prominent and beloved studios, known for its portrayal of women as lovesick, house-arrested, eye-candy. Jolie’s participation in lobbying for legislative change on a global front is inspiring, though it may be Maleficent that is challenging the most insidious of oppressors—the Hollywood feature film. As the L.A. Times’ Betsy Sharkey points out, “It’s one thing to speak in front of global dignitaries about the need to combat rape; it’s quite another to slip that message into a global blockbuster.”

It is no secret that there is tremendous gender disparity in Hollywood—where the stories of men are told in the words of men, through the lenses of men, and about the desires of men. In 2013, the MPAA reported that 52 percent of movie going audiences were women, yet of the year’s top 500 grossing films, women comprised only 30 percent of speaking roles, only half of which were protagonists.  When women are present (as characters who are predominantly written by men), they are often regulated to the usual roles of ingénue, mother, or wicked witch/queen/stepmother.

This is a pattern so consistent that The Atlantic‘s Raina Lipstiz argued Thelma & Louise was the last great movie about women. That was 23 years ago.

Combating this is one of the ways Maleficent creates real change, as making a truly progressive film for women means more than just passing the Bechdel TestMaleficenthas two female protagonists, and the majority of the film focuses on the relationship they develop with each other. It was written by a woman, Disney veteran Linda Woolverton,who credits the film with one of the most emotional moments of her career, the kiss scene between Maleficent and Aurora/Sleeping Beauty.

You have to rewrite these things 100 times, and every single time I wrote it I could barely get through it. I did Homeward Bound, you know that dog movie? Every single time I wrote the moment over the hill when everyone comes back at the end, I would cry into my hand over the keyboard. The kiss scene was like that for me.

Woolverton’s emotional attachment and her assertion that 20 years ago she couldn’t have written “as complex a lead character” is a reflection of the rampant sexism in Hollywood, echoing the growing frustration of female moviegoers who yearn to see characters in their likeness and stories that mirror their own experiences.

Of course, the film has it’s flaws and allows ample opportunity for feminist critique. It is, in fact, a fairy tale created in the same old storybook of kingdoms and hierarchies and colonization, one so lackluster in creativity that blogger Lindy West asks, “You could have built any world you wanted to—why choose one ruled by the same regressive, white-washed mid-century morality as every other ‘modern’ fairy tale? Aren’t thou bored?”

West goes on to note the glaring acceptance of gender normativity by the female characters who exist as “moldy feminine tropes—the sullied innocent, the abandoned lover lost without her man, the evil ex-girlfriend, the overreacting harpy, the broken woman redeemed by motherhood.”

It’s true. West’s analyses evoke Audre Lorde’s assertion that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. But focusing on the ways Maleficent reinforces stereotypical images of women distracts from the vital moments when it does not, most notably the conscious choice by the writer and executive producer to create a national dialogue about rape and sexual assault, in a country where it largely goes unspoken. Fairy tale or not, Maleficent is reflective of the experiences of #YesAllWomen.

“The Longest War” is what writer Rebecca Solnit calls America’s cultural relationship between sexual violence and gender:

At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, date rape, marital rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible.

The feminist lessons in Maleficent may not have the same magnitude as those taught in college classrooms or published in scholarly journals, but they are reflective of a common experience among American women and girls. These women, though they may not live in a categorical warzone, live in a country where one in four experience teen dating violence, one in four are abused by a partner in their lifetime, and one of six are survivors of rape or attempted rape.

These are the women who cheered when Aurora saves Maleficent by rescuing her wings, the same way that a generation of women before erupted in bursts of support when Louise shoots Thelma’s rapist. It more than just a climactic plot twist, more than just character redemption, and way more than revenge. This is a chance for real women to access and feel their right to a self-determined life. Through these characters, a silenced majority is given a voice that is resonating beyond the silver screen.

After all, the Global Summit to End Violence During Conflict didn’t take place in Fairy Tale Land.

 

Rebellious Relationships

Originally posted at Rebellious Woman Magazine

A few years ago, I was lamenting over my love life – I think I had just broken up with my last serious boyfriend – and my friend, Sabrina, said to me, “You are a different kind of person, living a different kind of life, and you’re going to have a different kind of relationship. That takes a really special kind of guy.”

So special, I’m beginning to think that he may not even exist.

To heterosexual date while feminist is an interesting challenge. Some say to date men is inherently anti-feminist. I think this is bullshit. I do, however, recognize how difficult it is to challenge your own gender normativity and privilege while trying to interact and have relationships with people who largely aren’t thinking about such things. I find that most guys, even when interested, are intimidated either by my knowledge or the threat of how that knowledge relates to them and their behavior. What I’ve come to learn about all relationships is they work best when both individuals are self-aware and willing to own up to their personal struggle.  Culturally, men have been raised to never question who they are – “Boys will be boys.” I’d be way more accepting of the “Boys will be boys” mentality if more boys thought like this guy:

I recently wrote a blog about my frustrations with dating, specifically with men (Feminist Ryan Gosling excluded, obviously he is perfect) in a somewhat general way, though directly from the perspective of my lived experiences. The blog was angry, as was I when I wrote it.   I was angry at “men” – for not calling, for not showing up, for not having to take any of the responsibility of creating and cultivating a relationship, for building a nation that purposefully excluded me and keeps me from having rights and power over my body and my choices.

But, the truth is, I am angry with myself. Not because I’m 33 and single. Because I’m 33 and counting…the days since he’s called, what’s left of my child bearing years, how long it will be until I have visible wrinkles and if I will be married by then…

I’ve tried pretty hard to reframe my timelines and to unlearn the systemic trajectory that says our lives should follow a certain path – college, job, marriage, babies – in order for us to be happy or successful or valuable. The one place I can’t seem to get flexible is in my romantic relationships. I still look to relationships with men to make me feel good about myself. No matter how much fun I have with the ladies, no matter what kind of exhilarating high I get from performing, from getting published, from being me – it’s just not the same as the feeling I get when there is a boy who likes me.  Am I right?!

What I struggle with these days is how to maintain a happy, fun life while still looking for someone to share it with.  How to not let the looking take over or how to not be so available because we all know what turn off that is. How do we find the balance  – how do we feel good about the feelings we get from relationships without depending on them for our personal fulfillment?

These are the questions, complications and insights I’m struggling with. Whether it is your boyfriend, girlfriend, best friend, boss…relationships are the heart of this human experience and feminism, y’all, is for everyone.